Elizabeth von Arnim’s Eccentric Charm

After reading The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden in quick succession, I have to concede I have fallen in love with the witty, sly, unconventional author best known under the name Elizabeth von Arnim. These two novels are fairy-tales to a certain extent, where the brutal reality of married life is somewhat swept under the carpet, where amused forgiveness is still possible and desirable. I do worry about Mrs. Wilkins in The Enchanted April, and how she and the other ladies will fare once they return to the less romantic English landscape and climate.

In Elizabeth and Her German Garden the narrator openly refers to her husband as the Man of Wrath and his humourless, judgemental pronouncements (which she excuses with an ironical laugh) make me want to slap him around the face at times. Clearly, the author herself did not find her first husband all that congenial either, and none of her marriages or love affairs were fully satisfactory. She emerges as a strong-willed and eccentric woman, very dreamy, absorbed by nature and literature, but still caring about other people’s opinions and needs.

Although I barely knew the plants she was listing and describing, I enjoyed the passion she felt for her garden, her sadness at not being able to do the digging herself, the detailed study of seed catalogues and obvious pride at the results. It is utterly charming and unusual, the very essence of Englishness, full of astute observations about people and cultures. And sometimes she voices opinions which sound remarkably modern.

Archive picture of Nassenheide manor with April, May and June babies.

To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important?… It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else… I should cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment…

The hours fly by shut up with those catalogues and with Duty snaring on the other side of the door. I don’t like Duty – everything in the least disagreeable is always sure to be one’s duty.

Well, trials are the portion of mankind, and gardeners have their share, and in any case it is better to be tried by plants than persons, seeing that with plants you know that it is you who are in the wrong, and with persons it is always the other way about…

Miss Jones looked as though she did not like Germans. I am afraid she despises us because she thinks we are foreigners – an attitude of mind quite British and wholly to her credit; but we, on the other hand, regard her as a foreigner, which, of course, makes things very complicated.

Happiness is so wholesome; it invigorates and warms me into piety far more effectually than any amount of trials and griefs… In spire of the protestations of some peculiarly constructed persons that they are the better for trials, I don’t believe it. Such things must sour us, just as happiness must sweeten us and make us kinder, and more gentle.

Original picture of Nassenheide from 19th century.

If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don’t listen to the shrieks of your relations, to their gibes or their entreaties; don’t let your own microscopic set prescribe your goings-out and comings-in; don’t be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbour in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

If this sounds like a self-help book, it is not. And the narrator is quickly brought down to earth by her friend’s retort to the above exhortation:

To hear you talk, no one would ever imagine that you dream away your days in a garden with a book, and that you never in your life seized anything by the scruff of its neck.

It is this down-to-earth quality, this endearing exchange of firmly-held points of view, as well as the love of nature which makes this book such a delightful companion, although it is clear that the author is speaking from a position of privilege to which we may find it difficult to relate. A true mood-booster, which should not have been relegated to the dark, dank reserve stock cellars of the library.

Another archive picture of Nassenheide during Elizabeth’s time there. The property has been demolished and now lies within the borders of Poland.

Season of Bounty

On this first day of summer, I decided to write a poem about the first day of autumn. Don’t ask me why… I usually love summer. All the seasons, in fact. I am linking this up to dVerse Poets Pub Open Link Night #197, where all styles of poems welcome on this occasion.

Ardent berries she folds over

For birds to peck, hedgerows to trim.

A casual fling of hoary mantle

Is all she needs to silence doubters.

Pyres of leaves burnt in her honour,

Lawns raked neat, while woodland damp

Moves in shrubbery unnoticed.

Two mushrooms sulk in rotten greys.

The toad’s eyes wary as in the brambles

A hedgehog sinks in compost nest.

Times of plenty breed unlikely allies.

Someday you and I might still be friends.

Friday Fun: Quiet Time to Write

It’s been far too busy and sociable this past week or so, and now it’s time to focus on writing once more. So here are some places where ‘escape’ is the name of the game and SO much writing would get done in close proximity to nature…

Dandelion House by Terunobu Fujimori, from Pinterest.
Dandelion House by Terunobu Fujimori, from Pinterest.
Eastate Treehouse, from Buzzfeed.
Eastate Treehouse, from Buzzfeed.
Floating island in France from France Canopy and Stars website.
Floating island in France from France Canopy and Stars website.
Treehouse Beverley Hills, image by Joe Fletcher, from Architecture Now.
Treehouse Beverley Hills, image by Joe Fletcher, from Architecture Now.
Watamu Treehouse in Kenya, from holidaylettings.com
Watamu Treehouse in Kenya, from holidaylettings.com
Wilkinson residence, from thatoregonlife.com
Wilkinson residence, from thatoregonlife.com

 

 

The Source and Now the Final

‘Let’s go to the Allondon’s source!’ they cried and I

expect a trickle or gentle gush, a scene of birth.

Not a waterfall pummelling the mossy rocks then

pausing in a pool to gather breath before

thundering in confidence across pastures, between trees.

It’s March and snows are melting, you tell me that

in summer it slows to suppuration.

So I wonder what you think of the slowing of my seasons

and stumble in my gait.

Photo from ain-tourism.com
Photo from ain-tourism.com

The river Allondon is unusual: it springs out of the ground as a waterfall, so is already a considerable stream as it rustles and hustles and meanders its way through the Pays de Gex to join the Rhone. I am linking this poem to the wonderfully diverse offerings on display at Open Link Night for dVerse Poets.

Haibun: Fear of Sparrows

This is my first attempt at a haibun, a form that I have seen quite a few of my fellow poets attempt at the dVerse Poets Pub. So tonight, for Open Link Night with Grace, I thought I’d give it a whirl myself. Not quite right for the Dog Days of Summer prompt earlier this week, but moving in that direction…

You trill and chirp, flutter hither and thither with worms, blades of grass, twiglets in your beak. The tree branches shiver in anticipation of your landing. All hops and thrills, you sway and tilt your winsome head sideways with cheeky flourish.

I so want to make friends. But can you not feel the menace of our feline, belly crouched below the green line? Perhaps we should have fastened bells to her collar, or perhaps she’ll be too slow. I know we’ve let the grass grow too long: one swift spring and your family could be decimated.

Small but persistent
They play happy families –
Sparrows on my sill.

Tree Poetry

Abhra Pal is hosting us over at dVerse Poets Pub and inviting us to write about trees, to think, be and feel tree. I always have to think about Ogden Nash’s tongue-in-cheek approach to tree poetry:

I think that I shall never see 
a billboard lovely as a tree. 
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, 
I’ll never see a tree at all.

TreeFor a diverse and interesting take on this prompt, please visit the other poets at the Pub. But here is a rough writing exercise about the tree in my garden. And no, I don’t know what kind of tree it is. I told you I am the world’s worst gardener, right?

 

I’m not good with names,

but I never met a tree I didn’t like.

This one is a toddler:

it greens so easily at the first blush of spring.

Shot up a metre when I looked away,

no longer hugged by the window frame.

Unruly and curly,

messy and fussy,

now a badly coiffed teenager windswept on all sides,

then a woman’s cascading morning glory,

promise of nights to come.

Leaves are gnarled and twisted too,

they sing the blues, over smoky-voiced guitars in distant jazz-clubs.

Skinny branches twist in painful shapes,

not quite weeping willow.

They arch up against gravity

with just occasional droops.

A fearless tree, shaking its mane

against a backdrop of mountains.

A sapling with just as much claim to eternity

as the Jurassic stones behind it.

 

 

Eagles

Courtesy of www.deshow.net
Courtesy of http://www.deshow.net

Becoming more experimental in my old age… This is a writing exercise, a sort of prose poem based on free association with certain words or concepts. Very rough, but it was fun to do. I’m linking it to the Open Link Night at dVerse Poets Pub – join us for drinks, fun, good humour and lots of great (and very varied) poetry.

Wingspan: endless.

Eyesight: acute.

Disposition: heartless.

Victims: too numerous to mention.

Wanted in several countries as symbol of boldness, greatness, goal-orientation.  A menace to one’s enemies, totemic of clear-sightedness.

But, locking your gaze onto a distant target, what might you be missing in the quiet corners, the nooks of your eyes?

Sudden swoop of power, then a lifetime of solitude on some bald crag of unnamed rock. Pecking at unwanted liver of a chap who never understood just why he was being punished.

Give me the magpie any day. Distracted, thieving, but always on the lookout for ideas, objects, friends.  A life of peripheral vision.